Monday, 24 March 2014

The exquisite study of life and all its bittersweetness in The Hours

From The Week of March 17, 2014

As much as our memories suggest otherwise, life is filled with mundanity. Yes, we vividly remember the emotional moments that fire through our recollections, but these weddings and divorces, vacations and exhilarations, stand out largely thanks to just how much normality our brains have shrugged into the trash. Add up all the flashbulb days that transform and transfix us and, if we're fortunate, we're left with 40 or 50 standouts compared to tens of thousands of ordinaries. Which leads one to an inevitable conclusion.

To be good with life we must be good with the mundane. There is simply no other way to be happy. For to live principally for the days and nights that excite our blood is to place bets we're far more apt to lose than win. We must live for today, in whatever form it comes. But what if we cannot? What if the prospect of mundanity is a crushing reminder of of all of life's failures large and small? What if excitement is the only way for one to feel alive? What then? It's hard to imagine this pain demonstrated better than in Michael Cunningham's mesmerizing novel.

Decades apart, in three different parts of the world, the lives of Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Wolfe would appear to have little in common with one another. Clarissa is a woman of privilege, surrounded by artistic friends, living out the downside of middle age in 1990s New York; Laura is a still-youthful mother in California just beginning to come to grips with the constrictions of marriage in 1940s Los Angeles; and Virginia is a famous author, as brilliant as she is unstable, persisting in the suburbs of 1920s London. And yet, their lives are connected not just through the story of Mrs. Dalloway, which Virginia is creating, Laura is reading, and Clarissa is living, but through the extent to which they are all attempting to make good with the lives they've created and the talents they've been given.

The sum of these three interwoven narratives, The Hours is a captivating, non-linear rumination on the nature of everyday existence. Mr. Cunningham conceives of a single day in each woman's existence and, as the novel unfolds, allows their thoughts, their reactions and their emotions to fill in a life's worth of detail. By the work's conclusion, we not only understand Clarissa, Laura and Virginia in ways both profound and poignant, we come to understand that life is itself comprised of interactions which may individually appear to be meaningless but are, in the aggregate, quite literally who we are. We may be influenced by how our parents raised us, how our schools trained us and how our obligations wear on us, but how we handle all of life's moments is how we come to know ourselves and what we care about.

For The Hours' three spellbinding protagonists, this gestalt portrays a largely disquieting image of lives stifled by mental illness, by the chains of matrimony and by the weight of regret. In each case, we find disappointment lurking close by, waiting to ambush us at the first opportunity. For it is easy to feel, in retrospect, that we should have tried harder, should have overcome more, should have chosen better. And yet, we did what we could do in the moment. We gave what we could at the time. That this has failed to yield the optimum result is as much the fault of chance and circumstance than in our own stars. Of course, to us, this knowledge is cold comfort. It changes nothing. Our lives are still our own, still for us to lead, to endure.

As depressing as this truth appears, The Hours is in no way emotionally burdensome. Not only is there happiness here, even pleasure, an acknowledgement that mundanity has its own rewards, there is a powerful sense that most wounds can be healed if one recognizes them early enough. Regret and matrimony, for instance, are temporary states. Their condition can be alleviated in any number of ways, provided one has the time and the courage to do so. And in this way, we come to understand that mundanity is exquisitely bittersweet. It is the recognition of the good amidst the difficult. And it is this spirit that vivifies the book, elevating it from the dismal to the mind opening.

This is all quite deep. The fact is, in addition to its many rewarding layers, The Hours possesses glorious prose, a tender heart and a poignant message. It's little wonder that it won one of the most prestigious literary awards we have. Deservedly so... One of the most touching experiences I've had in years... (5/5 Stars)

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